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Watch the Birdies

July 29, 1991
July 29, 1991

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July 29, 1991

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British Open
Cal Ripken Jr.
Olympic Festival
Keith Millard
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Inside
Focus
Point After

Watch the Birdies

Ian Baker-Finch got off to a flying start in the final round and easily won the British Open

When do you think Ian Baker-finch figured he had the British Open won? When he had a five-shot lead on Sunday and the only people chasing him were an American late for traction, an Irishman with a flying elbow and an Australian with all the confidence of Gilligan? Or was it when he shot a little 29 on the front nine, and the contenders fell back as if he had sneakaroma? Or maybe it was when he came to the final hole needing only a double bogey to win, and there wasn't a lake in sight.

This is an article from the July 29, 1991 issue Original Layout

Sunday was Baker-Finch's day to win the British Open, and he did so by bludgeoning the tricky greens with his putter. The 30-year-old Aussie jammed five birdies into the first seven holes, went five shots up on the rest of the field in the first 70 minutes of the final round and turned the world's most famous golf tournament into the world's best-attended nature walk. The last day of the 120th British Open, played over the gorse and thistle and eerie dunes of Royal Birkdale—the Sea of Tranquillity Muni will look like this—in Southport, England, had all the tension and drama of watching hollandaise congeal.

You think Baker-Finch was happy? Somebody put down £150,000 ($247,500) on him at 50-1 odds with a London bookmaker before the week started. Even Baker-Finch said at the time, "He must know something I don't know." Seeing as how the unidentified wagerer is now $12,375,000 richer, maybe he did know something. Maybe he knew that Ian Baker-Birdiemaker was as hot coming into the Open as Pensacola pavement, having finished in the top 10 in six of his last nine tournaments. Maybe he knew that Baker-Finch is the newest guest star of Late Night with David Leadbetter, the absolute must-have teaching pro to the stars. Or maybe he knew that Baker-Finch wanted this one badly.

Twice Baker-Finch had been in the final Sunday pairing of a British Open, and twice he had "stuffed it," as the Aussies say for choking, losing by eight shots to Seve Ballesteros in 1984 and seven to Nick Faldo in '90. "Still have some scar tissue from those," he said ruefully last week.

But could he stuff a five-shot lead with 10 holes to play? Why not? Nothing else had made sense at Birkdale all week. Take, for instance, last Thursday, the day Ballesteros burst into the first-round lead with a wind-whipped 66, and a naked 16-year-old girl burst through the 1st fairway and put a bare-hug on Josè-María Olazàbal. It was recorded as the first time in British tabloid history that the news and the Page 3 girl were actually the same thing. Olazàbal was never the same again. He finished 80th.

Nothing made much more sense the next day, when Ballesteros wore two hats in the chilling wind and rain. He wore a Jackie Stewart-type racing cap with a floppy blue fisherman-style hat over it. "Keeps my head warm," he said after shooting a 73 to fall a stroke off the lead through two rounds. Of course, if anybody else wore two hats they would look like Minnie Pearl. When Ballesteros wore two hats, he looked like a Latin Minnie Pearl.

Nevertheless, Mark Calcavecchia beat all on Friday, when, after shooting a 79 to miss the cut by two shots, he gave his clubs to a sand trap attendant as he walked off the course. In return, the sand trap attendant offered Calcavecchia his rake "considering the way he was playing."

After Friday's round, you could have sworn somebody had mistakenly listed the players who missed the cut on the leader board. Tied for the lead were Gary Hallberg of the U.S., Mike Harwood of Australia and Andy Oldcorn of England, three guys who wouldn't get autograph requests if they carried their clubs on Oxford Street. Nobody was trembling at the sight of that threesome at the top. Even Harwood wasn't impressed with himself. "Well, I'm not one of the great players in the world, I'm just a grinder," he said. "If nobody else wants to win it, and I'm still hanging around, well, maybe."

In fact, the first two days were so stirring that the crowds got huge. Not only outside the ropes, but inside them. So underwhelming was Harwood & Co.'s two-under 138 that 113 players made the cut instead of the usual 70 or so, owing to a new rule that allowed all players within 10 shots of the lead the chance to play through the weekend. Each extra man who made the cut cost the Royal & Ancient an extra £3,000 ($4,950) in prize money. Looks like mushed peas for lunch again next year, Haversham.

The only thing left to happen Saturday was for one of the contenders to break his leg, so Britain's Richard Boxall did. He was only three shots off the lead when the tibia snapped in his left leg as he hit his tee shot on the 9th hole. His leg had hurt him most of the day, and when it finally went, a bystander said it sounded as if Boxall's club shaft had snapped. Some guys are just born to lose the Open.

As for those still standing, all 112 of them looked as if they were conspiring to split the pot. Nobody broke away, least of all the Big Three: Greg Norman (finished tied for ninth). Ian Woosnam (tied for 17th) and defending champion Nick Faldo (also tied for 17th), who complained that a camera click ruined his Friday round. Then again, Faldo could hear a camera click in Glasgow. It hasn't been his year. In May he nearly cut his thumb off slicing ice cream, and in the same week his house just outside London was burglarized while his family was in it. Johnny Miller says he's too bulked up, and he hasn't been within a fax call of the Sunday leaders in a major this year.

On Saturday, Baker-Finch and Mark O'Meara, neighbors in Orlando, Fla., finished at four under, good enough for a one-stroke lead and the final pairing Sunday—that was, if O'Meara could get up Sunday. Only an amalgamation of Advil, Nuprin, Excedrin, sleeping on the floor, ice and hope had kept his ailing back and swollen rib cartilage from sending him home. He was hurting so badly after his 71 on Thursday, he had tears in his eyes.

"I like my guy," Baker-Finch's caddie, Pete Bender, said Saturday night. "I'm telling you, this guy can putt like nobody I've seen. From eight feet in, I put this guy against anybody." Bender should know. He used to caddie for Norman.

And Bender was right. The man they call the Sparrow (Finch, get it?) left himself a 13-foot putt for birdie on the 2nd hole on Sunday. He made it. Ten feet on the 3rd hole. Made it. Seven feet on the 4th. Made it. Six feet on the 6th. Made it. Fifteen feet on the 7th. Made it. His putter was hotter than a charcoal starter. Suddenly, he had a five-shot lead. "He just blew the tournament open," Harwood said afterward.

There were only four guys left Sunday who had even the skimpiest chance of making Ian Baker flinch. One was Eamonn (pronounced Amen) Darcy. The only dour Irishman in existence got to within three shots of Baker-Finch at the 13th hole, but he and his fly-away-elbow swing bogeyed the 14th and double-bogeyed the 15th and disappeared. From now on, those holes should be known as Eamonn's Corner. Two was Harwood, who birdied 16 to get within two shots but could not birdie the easiest par 5 in Britain, the downwind 17th, thus letting Baker-Finch off the hook. Harwood finished second. Three was O'Meara, who didn't make many birdies but was at least able to walk. Walk, that is, until the traditional Trampling of the Golfers occurred at 18, at which time he got knocked over by the surging spectators and was in such pain he could barely finish the hole. His 69 left him tied for third, which was worth £55,000 ($90,750), enough to keep him in Tylenol for, what, three weeks?

Four, of course, was Baker-Finch himself, who knew well the art of stuffing: "I thought to myself, Don't stuff it now. Imagine what it's going to be like if you mess up from nine under."

Thanks to the fact that Birkdale is lakeless, and thanks to Bender, he didn't. Bender walked in front of Baker-Finch, pacing him, rubbed his mental shoulders and kept him aiming at pins. At the crucial 16th, Baker-Finch hit a seven-iron right at the cloth and, as it was falling, said to Bender, "Do you like that one, Peter?" Bender said he loved it. It produced another par, and the two-shot lead held.

All that was left was the obligatory two-putt birdie at 17 and a 20-foot putt on 18, which Baker-Finch could have three-putted and still won. Men on horseback can three-putt from 20 feet. Now that's when you know it's your day to win the British Open, and he did—with a four-under 66.

"I think the pain of losing those Opens was the start of winning here," he said afterward. "Today erases those memories."

Keep your eye on the Sparrow.

PHOTODAVID CANNON/ALLSPORTBaker-Finch's five birdies led to a 29 for the first nine holes on Sunday.PHOTODAN SMITH/ALLSPORTWearing two hats at once or none at all, first-round leader Ballesteros tore up the course on Friday.PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINDad "stuffed it" in the '84 and '90 Opens, but Hayley found the trophy within reach this year.